Obama’s West Point speech: A foreign policy of words, not deeds

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There is something pathetic about President Barack Obama’s kickoff speech for a month-long campaign to recast the foreign policy failures of the last five years as some kind of “success” within the “new” foreign policy framework he enunciated at West Point today.

The speech, like his announcement that the U.S. would withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan by 2016, embodied Obama’s ongoing attempts to manage U.S. foreign policy by looking first and foremost to domestic political objectives and, in this context, to manage the narrative about the “success” of his foreign policy.

The speech reveals, above all else, Obama’s inability to hear the substance of what his critics are saying about his foreign policy. They either “don’t understand” or are making criticisms for purely partisan purposes.

The speech was an attempt to persuade his many audiences “that he was right” in the foreign policy decisions and actions he has taken over the last five years. He makes no attempt to hide the arrogance of this assertion.

As Russia is still engaged, today, in aggression against the Ukraine by sending both special operations and irregular forces across its border with Ukraine, to wreak havoc and intimidation among the population in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and more widely, Obama trumphets his appeasement and pacifism in the face of Russian aggression–tempered only by modest targeted sanctions against individuals and companies in Russia and the Ukraine.

As we have long suggested, the reader would be wise to pay attention to Obama’s actions, and just ignore the torrents of well-crafted words which seek to put him in the best light.

Obama was an extraordinary candidate, particularly in 2008. But now, after five years in office, the president can and will be judged by his record. The time for electoral speeches is past. He has but two and a half years to alter the judgment of history. If his speech today is any indication, those years are likely to be an opportunity wasted.

Long after he has lost his ability to influence the narrative of his foreign policy, it is to deeds, to actions and not words, that historians and others will look.

The record of those actions, and their consequences in the world, is not a pretty one. Speeches will not, and cannot, change that fact.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.